Did you follow the government’s annual get-together at Conservative Party Conference? No? Let me fill you in. Boris Johnson convened his mostly male cabinet in Manchester where they gave speeches full of slogans but short on substance in front of rapturous crowds. Outside, beyond the armed police and a ring of steel, the world felt like it was falling apart. The disconnect between Britain’s leaders and reality can be summed up by one event at this elongated away day.
Picture the scene: it’s the evening before the government cuts Universal Credit by £20 a week. This decision will have a devastating impact. Even cautious estimates have said that it will push 800,000 people into poverty. Where is the minister who is in charge of the Department for Work and Pensions, tasked with overseeing this cut which has many people – particularly young women, who the charity StepChange has said will be worst affected – worried about how they’re going to make ends meet?
Yes. In the hours before midnight when this cut came into effect, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Thérèse Coffey, was belting the Dirty Dancing classic "(I've Had) The Time of My Life".
Perhaps it was escapism. Nonetheless, the optics were bad. Very bad. Unless you’ve stopped reading and watching the news (which nobody would blame you for because it’s sobering, to say the least), you’ll know that Britain faces a tough winter. Some newspapers are calling this "the winter of discontent" because, even though we’re in 2021, the scenes unfolding all around us are reminiscent of the 1970s when a Labour government was exposed as nearly powerless after workers went on strike due to low pay, disrupting everyday essentials like food delivery and healthcare.
In recent weeks there has been a shortage of fresh fruit and vegetables in supermarkets because changes brought about by Brexit mean that we don’t have enough HGV drivers to keep shelves stocked. There have been queues at petrol pumps all over the country for the same reason: there are not enough lorry drivers to keep petrol stations full of fuel. The price of other essentials, like energy, is also rising.
Like the financial fallout of much of the pandemic, this is all set to impact young women in particular. According to the Young Women’s Trust, they will bear the brunt of our difficult winter. Caroline Bernard, the Trust's director of communications, told Refinery29: "In the wake of the lockdowns caused by the pandemic, young women now face further financial pressures, from the end of furlough and the Universal Credit uplift to rapidly rising living costs."
In my family, we always talk about how good it would be to live in Australia. They seemed to have the pandemic under control.
To put a figure on the scale of this problem, the Young Women’s Trust says 1.5 million young women have lost income since the start of COVID, with many (69%) claiming benefits for the first time. "They have told us that Universal Credit has been a lifeline, helping them afford medications, feed their children, buy period products and remove themselves from abusive situations," Caroline continues. "Losing this just as fuel, food and energy prices rise will be devastating and we are hearing from young women who are terrified about the coming winter months."
It’s easy – helpful even – to idealise other countries when yours is in a mess. To daydream about the alternative lives you could live. Why not press the 'sod it' button and start again? When Britain’s sky is full of heavy, grey clouds, the allure of warmer climes where people live longer feels more like logic than fantasy.
Twenty-six-year-old Gemma dreams of living in Australia. She is currently unemployed and facing up to the impact of the Universal Credit cut on her life. "I live at home with my dad in Prudhoe, which is in Northumberland, because I can’t afford to rent a place of my own," she explains.
Before the pandemic, Gemma worked in management for a high street fashion brand in their stores. She was made redundant last year when the Newcastle branch she was working in closed. She is currently searching for employment but struggling to make it work.
"I used to have jobs in local shopping centres but now, when I go to look, there’s hardly anything being advertised. And what there is available is all zero hours," Gemma says.
"I was recently offered a job in Manchester on a starting salary but I realised that it wouldn’t even be enough to pay rent so I had to turn it down," she continues. "It wouldn’t have made financial sense." During the pandemic, rents outside London have risen to record highs. In Wigan, Greater Manchester and Mansfield, Nottinghamshire they have gone up by 10% or more. Gemma is at the sharp end of that.
"I’ve got a degree in journalism and a background in marketing," Gemma continues. "I really want to put it to use but there just aren’t the jobs. I was putting the extra £20 a month towards living costs and running a website which I was using to help find a job. I’m going to struggle to afford that now and it’s going to affect my employability."
Gemma thinks the government’s handling of everything as we emerge from the pandemic is "an absolute shambles".
"I just don’t think they realise what they’ve done," she says. "I don’t think they get the reality of what it’s like to be on Universal Credit. I have to travel an hour each way to go and meet my work coach each week. That meeting takes three minutes and it isn’t even very helpful."
Taking matters into her own hands, Gemma says she has written to Boris Johnson. "I didn’t receive a reply," she says. "I think they’re living in another world."
When she graduated, Gemma was excited about her future in Britain, her home. Now, she is disillusioned. "In my family, we always talk about how good it would be to live in Australia. I’ll never be able to pay back my student loan and my parents can’t help me out. In this country, it’s not easy to make it work."
Australia is a beacon on the distant horizon for Gemma. One she knows she cannot afford to reach. Similarly, 21-year-old Freya from Lincolnshire is currently figuring out how she will move forward after the Universal Credit cut. She is currently out of work due to mental health struggles and focusing on her recovery. She says the £20 per week cut will make the difference between staying on top of rent and falling behind.
"My partner and I rely on Universal Credit. It has been a lifeline," she says. "At the moment, everything is getting more expensive – electricity and gas. The extra £20 a week stopped us getting behind and it meant that when we did a food shop we could get a bit extra to last us even longer. Now I know there will be a few days where we’ll be struggling for food every month."
In Freya’s eyes, Britain is not a compassionate place to live. "I think there’s a lot of stigma around being on benefits," she explains. "People just assume things about you and they aren’t very nice."
Conservative ministers may be having "the time of their life" but Britain’s young women certainly aren’t.
Barely able to leave the house due to her mental health and financial constraints, moving elsewhere is not an option for Freya right now but she wishes it were. "I wish there was a place where you'd be treated equally by everyone, no matter what your status was," she says thoughtfully. "Regardless of whether you were unemployed or employed, disabled, not disabled. A place where there was a government that understood you. [Our government] only cares about making sure that they’re okay and they leave other people – like me and loads of other young women – because they don’t care about what’s happening with us."